What Triggers Our Habits

Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is all about changing the ways we relate to others by changing how we give advice, listen, question, and generally speak with those around us. Most of the time, as Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler explain in their book, The Elephant in the Brain, we are in a hurry to share what we know, give advice, and speak up. Bungay Stanier suggests that what we should be doing, if we truly want to change our coaching habit to be more effective and helpful for those around us, is spend more time listening and more time asking questions rather than giving advice and speaking. Hanson and Simler suggest that our urge to be helpful by speaking and giving advice is our brain’s way to show how wise, connected, and valuable we are, but the problem as Bungay Stanier would argue, is that this gets in the way of actually developing another person and helping someone else grow.

 

To make a change in our speaking habit, first we must understand what we want to change and we must focus on the why behind our change. Once we have built the self-awareness to recognize that we need to change, we need to understand what is driving the habit that we are working to get away from. This is why I introduced Hanson and Simler’s book above. If the habit we want to change is speaking too much and not asking enough questions, we need to understand that when we are coaching or helping another, we are driving to give advice in part to demonstrate how smart we are and how vast our experiences are. We are driven in other words, to not help the other but to boast about ourselves. Understanding this small part helps us know what we actually want to change and what is driving the original habit.

 

Bungay Stanier references another book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and writes, “if you don’t know what triggers the old behavior, you’ll never change it because you’ll already be doing it before you know it.” The self-awareness necessary in changing habits requires us to first see what needs to change, second to identify the why behind our desired change, and third to become aware of the small things that trigger our habit. If we know that having our phone near our bed leads to us being more likely to check Facebook first thing in the morning, then we can remove that trigger by placing the phone in another room and finding a new alarm alternative. Ultimately, in this example, we are more likely to succeed in changing our habit of checking Facebook as soon as we wake up by changing our environment. Similarly, Bungay Stanier would agree, knowing that we provide advice to make ourselves look valuable to society helps us see the mental triggers that encourage us to share bad advice rather than to listen and ask helpful questions. Ultimately, to change our habit we need to further expand self-awareness to recognize not just the change we want to make and the reason we want to make a change, but to also recognize the large or small things that drive us into our old habits. Addressing these triggers and structuring our life in a way to avoid them can help us be more successful in changing habits for the better.
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Change for Others

Michael Bungay Stanier gives his readers some advice for making the changes in their lives in his book The Coaching Habit. His first piece of advice is to become self-aware of what you want to change, and his second piece of advice is to understand exactly why you want to make that change. When thinking about a change that you want to make, it is helpful to think through the benefits and to turn the change into something positive that you are doing for other people. Simply making a change because it will benefit yourself may not bring you the mental impetus to move forward with the challenges of actually changing your behavior.

 

Bungay Stanier describes one of his take-aways from Leo Babauta’s book Zen Habits, “He talks about making a vow that’s connected to serving others …think less about what your habit can do for you, and more about how this new habit will help a person or people you care about.”

 

This is a powerful strategy for making important changes in our life and becoming the person that we want to be. Making a change just for ourselves is hard, because we can tell ourselves lots of lies that justify and excuse the behaviors that we made. But if our reason for change is connected to helping someone else, improving our life to further improve another person’s life, or is rooted in improving the world experience of another person, then we have another layer of complexity to justifying why we did not adopt our new habit or break our old habit.

 

I believe this strategy is powerful because it gets us thinking about the kind of person we want to be and the behaviors of people who are like the person we want to be. If we tell ourselves we are trying to live more healthy lives to set better examples for our family and to be able to participate with our kids in athletic activities or live longer with our family, then we can start to think about the traits that a healthy person may adopt. We tell ourselves we want to be healthy and that healthy people don’t eat donuts at work. The same doughnut temptation exists, but now we envision ourselves fitting in with the healthy group that does not eat donuts, and we compound that with our accountability to our family and our desire to be healthy for them.

Building Habits

In my last post I wrote about how much of our life happens on auto-pilot in habitual decisions and actions that often don’t even reach our conscious mind. Not everything we do needs to be a conscious action (think about how tired your brain would become if you had to focus on every step you took and how annoyed you would be if you had to think about every blink), but becoming more aware of our subconscious or unconscious decisions is incredibly valuable if you actually want to make a change in your life. Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the ways we can actually change our habits in his book The Coaching Habit and he identifies five specific components to changing behavior. He writes, “To build an effective new habit, you need five essential components: a reason, a trigger, a micro-habit, effective practice, and a plan.”

 

If we think about the habitual actions that we barely notice, we can see that we will never actually change those habits if we don’t recognize those habits through self-awareness. It is not enough to just think to ourselves that we want to write more, exercise more, or have a more tidy home. We have to actually recognize what habits are shaping the end state that we want to change. We have to have awareness of a problem, issue, or thing that could be different, and then we have to dive deeper to understand what it is that leads to the thing we want to change. It all begins and is shaped by a self-awareness that is like pancake batter poured in a single spot. You focus on one thing but your awareness and recognition slowly spreads outward around that one thing.

 

Changing a habitual action requires steps to avoid our initial habit. You start with a recognition that there is a habit, but from there you have to recognize what that leads you into the original habit that you want to change and why you want to do something different. Do you automatically roll out of bed and grab your phone as a flashlight and then find yourself checking emails or Facebook for 30 minutes instead of making your coffee? What can you do to prevent yourself from grabbing your phone? Perhaps getting a flashlight by your bed, leaving your phone in another room, or maybe installing the clapper. Each of these solutions can be thought of as a micro-habit to try to replace the trigger. It is not a huge change on its own and may not even seem related to your original barely recognizable habit, but it may shape your behavior in a powerful way. And finally, you have to practice your new habit and trigger avoidance and have a plan for how you will pull it all together.

 

This is a very quick and simplified version of changing a habit, but throughout you can see the importance of self-awareness in making changes in your life. Habits stick because they go unnoticed. We don’t recognize what it is that drives our unconscious habitual decisions, so we end up with the same habits shaping our same behaviors and actions. We must be aware enough to recognize the change we want, what leads to the behaviors we want to avoid, and be aware enough to plan ahead to make those changes easier.

Habitual

At the beginning of his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier says that we could all be better coaches by asking more questions and giving less advice. From one-on-one meetings, to chatting with a co-worker about a tough relationship situation, and even to dealing with a toddler or teenager, having a habit of asking questions rather than giving advice would make us a better coach or conversational sounding board. But our natural inclination is to give advice. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in The Elephant in the Brain suggest that we jump into advice giving because we are eager to show how much we know, demonstrating our skills, wisdom, and talents to gain prestige in other people’s eyes. What Bungay Stanier demonstrates however, is that our natural reaction is counter productive, at least if we actually want to be helpful for another person and help them grow.

But Bungay Stanier accepts that change is difficult, particularly because we as humans are creatures of habit, “…A Duke University study says that at least 45 percent of our waking behavior is habitual. Although we’d like to think we’re in charge, it turns out that we’re not so much controlling how we act with our conscious mind as we are being driven by our subconscious or unconscious mind. It’s amazing; also, it’s a little disturbing.”

I wrote recently about my love-hate relationship with routines. I love the habits that routines build and the productivity and time saving quality of a good routine. At the same time, a consistent routine seems to rob me of my mental decision-making powers, and time seems to move in a way where I am just a passive viewer and not an active driver of my decisions and actions. The habitual aspects of our life don’t seem like they could add up to 45% of our day, but I do not doubt it to be true. Any time I have tried to make a serious change in my life, I have been confronted with the power of habits that become baked into my daily routine and life. Leaving work and driving home directly, rather than to the gym, can be easily become a subconscious or unconscious habit in a way robbing us of a conscious decision to workout. Checking my phone can easily become automatic, and something I don’t even realize I have done until I notice I am putting my phone back in my pocket.

I don’t think there is a need to abandon all habits and try to force ourselves against any particular habit. But I do think there is a need to be aware of our habits so we recognize when we are making decisions and when we are following impulses and acting without really thinking about what we are doing. Much of Bungay Stanier’s book is about realizing the times when we act impulsively in conversation. Particularly, he calls attention to the times that we offer another person advice without really understanding their situation. He encourages us to change our conversation behavior to ask more questions so that we, and our conversation partner, can think more deeply and find more thorough answers by improving the way we think about an issue. This can’t be done if we are not aware of what we are saying or if we are simply acting habitually in our conversations and discussions. Self-awareness is a step toward addressing a habit, by allowing us to realize the opportunity for making a choice versus acting out of habit. Once we build that self-awareness and practice it in conversations, we can begin to be more effective coaches and conversational partners.

Asking More Questions

Michael Bungay Stanier starts one of the chapters in his book The Coaching Habit with a quote from Jonas Salk, “What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question.” This quote is fitting because Bungay Stanier’s premise in The Coaching Habit is that as coaches we too often focus on giving orders, directing people, telling others what should be done, giving advice, or filling up all the meeting time doing the talking. What he suggests we should do more of as coaches is let other people talk while we focus on asking more questions and listening. The job of the coach, in his view, is to get the individual speaking and to constantly ask further probing questions.

Asking more questions is not just about constantly asking why or how come. It is about listening to the individual and getting them to describe the situation more fully to identify what they believe they could have done differently in a given situation to get a better outcome. The individual you are working with is the expert in their life, even if they don’t know it. You, no matter how well you know the other person, are not truly an expert in their life and any advice or direction that you provide will necessarily be short sighted and leave out important factors.

I recently read Robin Hanson’s The Elephant In The Brain in which he argues that much of human behavior is guided by motivations and agendas that we keep secret, even to ourselves. Our behaviors are shaped by goals and desires that we don’t necessarily want to share with others because they are self-serving and potentially break with social norms. If we assume that everyone is acting based on self-interest and hidden motivations at least part of the time, then we have to assume that as coaches we don’t always know the best answer to another’s problem. If we are coaching and working with someone, we can ask questions that get them to think about their true motivations and build self-awareness. It would be defeating to try to force and individual to state their hidden motive, so we should not question it too relentlessly, but we should help kick start the other person’s introspection.

Ultimately, asking questions helps you and the other person better understand themselves. You giving advice does not help the other person because it is advice and direction coming from your limited perspective. A better approach is to ask questions that help expand the scope of consideration and perception for the other person. Your answers are incomplete and don’t lead to growth and development, whereas probing questions force the other person to be more considerate and help them grow and improve future behaviors.

What Coaching Does

Michael Bungay Stanier explains why coaching is such a positive force for those receiving coaching, and why we should invest more of our time and effort into learning to be a great coach. He writes, “Coaching can fuel the courage to step out beyond the comfortable and familiar, can help people learn from their experiences and can literally and metaphorically increase and help fulfill a person’s potential.” The three areas he identifies in which coaching makes an impact on our life are key to growth and development and are some of the hardest areas in life to harness and improve.

 

Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit, demonstrates ways to develop other people and outlines the benefits that coaches, teams, and individuals receive from good coaching. As I wrote before, it is not just the individual who benefits from good coaching, but also the coach who develops a stronger team and is able to empower the individual to do and take on more. Good coaching maximizes the individual and helps them take what are often scary steps toward improvement.

 

When I think about the three areas that Bungay Stanier identifies in good coaching, I think about how anyone becomes successful and how often as individuals we fail to take big steps toward our goals and fail to learn from our experiences. Research has shown that many people, particularly people of color, do not actually apply their talents to the best of their ability and do not step out to take on new and larger roles for themselves. I study political science and one of things that researches have found is that there are many good candidates out there from minority populations, but that many of them never think they have a chance and never run for office. A simple invitation and a little coaching to encourage political participation makes a big difference in terms of who runs for office and who steps out of their comfort zone to try running for office. Simply on our own it is hard to step forward and drive toward the things we want when the future is muddy and complicated.

 

I think we also fail to learn well from our experiences. It is not that we are ignorant, self-centered, and think we are flawless, but rather that life is busy and distracting, and pausing to think critically of an event from our past is hard to do. As Bungay Stanier explains, good coaches ask more questions than they provide answers, and their questions are often reflective in nature. Good coaches encourage us to think about our experiences in a way that we normally would not, and they help us make new connections and discoveries from the things we have done and experienced. Encouraging us to take chances and helping us think more critically about our past is what allows us to unlock our potential, and it is why good coaching is so valuable and should be practiced by more people.

Create Great Work

A real challenge across the globe in the coming decades will be helping people find ways to do meaningful work. A lot of our work today really is not that meaningful, and as more jobs can be automated, we will find ourselves with more people looking for meaningful work. Helping people find meaningful work will help preserve social order and cohesion and will be crucial for democracies, companies, families, and societies as a whole as we move forward.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the importance of meaningful work in his book The Coaching Habit and suggests that coaching people is easier and better when you are helping someone with meaningful work. When you give people tasks and ask them to do meaningless jobs, you will never get the most out of the people working with or for you. He writes, “The more we do work that has no real purpose, the less engaged and motivated we are. The less engaged we are, the less likely we are to find and create great work.”

 

The company I work for makes a real difference in the medical world. Our work leads to better health outcomes for patients and families and it is easy to see how our work has real purpose. But even within the work that I do, there can be tasks and items that seem like extra and unnecessary steps. These little things can build up, and even within a good job they can begin to feel tedious and disengaging. To combat this, my company encourages efficiency and automation within the important things that we do. We are encouraged to think about ways to improve systems and processes and to find new ways to do things better. It is the autonomy and trust from our leadership that helps us stay engaged by allowing us to continually craft our jobs to an optimal level.

 

Not everyone is in the same situation that I am in. Many companies hold people to specific processes and inefficiencies, perhaps just to see how conformist and loyal individuals are to the firm. This holds back growth an innovation and demotivates and disengages employees. As this happens to more people and as meaningless tasks are displaced to robots, we will have to find new ways to motivate and engage employees, because our employees are our fellow citizens, and because motivation and engagement can be thought of as a public good. We all rely on an engaged citizenry for our democracy, and work helps us feel valued and engaged. How we face this challenge as individual coaches and as companies will make a big difference in how engaged our society is in the future.